How You Can Get It All Right and Still Get It All Wrong
By Philip Gerard
I was a cub reporter for a small weekly newspaper, fresh out of college, where I had studied anthropology and English literature and taken not a single course in journalism. My editor was an old-fashioned newspaper man, the kind you might find in one of those old black-and-white films with fast snappy patter in which everyone is constantly saying things like, “Sweetheart—get me rewrite!” One day he hung up his phone and said across the newsroom, “Go over to the high school—some kid just saved his girlfriend from a burning car. Get me a hero story.” I’m quoting him to recreate the sense of urgency that came across, but of course that’s a trick, a convention of the genre. It’s been years and I’m trusting my memory to give me the gist of what he said, the way a writer usually must in any memoir—and “hero story” were key words.
So I chugged over to the high school in my washed-out yellow1962 Ford Falcon and there, indeed, in the parking lot sat the scorched hulk of a car, still smoking. Fire engines were pulled up nearby and a crowd of students and teachers had gathered. I got to work.
I interviewed the fire fighters, the boy who had saved his girlfriend, the girlfriend herself, the guidance counselor, and other witnesses. I got the license number of the car, wrote down its make a model and described the damage. I noted the shadow of the gym slanting across the tarmac, the temperature and clouds and the size of the crowd. My notes were copious and thorough, much longer than the story I would write.
Back at the office, I typed up an account of the incident and it ran on the front page with a photo and a headline about boy-hero saving girl—my first front-page byline. My career was launched. Puffed up with professional pride, I celebrated. I don’t remember where, but very likely I hoisted a few beers at the Deer Park Tavern, a local watering hole where we used to hold our weekly staff meetings over lunch.
In any case, some years later I was sitting at that same bar enjoying a beer and a sandwich when a stranger took the stool beside me. He said, “I know you,” and I was pleased to be recognized. “You wrote that story about the burning car,” he went on, and I admitted that yes, I had. “Well,” he said, “it was a great story. You got everything right except one thing.”
What was that, I wanted to know?
“The guy set the car on fire himself.”
According to him, the boy-hero and his girlfriend were having a spat. In a fit of anger, he locked her in the car and then set it ablaze. Almost immediately he had second thoughts, and so he smashed the passenger side window and hauled her out. And that was what everybody else saw: the rescue and the two of them making up.
I asked around and got confirmation from various other people around town who remembered the incident. Mostly they laughed about it, figuring the girl wasn’t ever in any real danger. It was just one of those stupid things that guys do when they’re tumbling in and out of love.
But I was mortified. That stranger’s words felt like a spanking. I had reported every detail exact and true. I had verified every fact in the piece. I had described the scene as I had witnessed it with my own eyes. All these years later, I don’t remember many of the details, but I do remember how hard I worked at the time to get them right.
Every fact was true, and yet the story was utterly false.
I had forgotten a fundamental truth about stories—or maybe I hadn’t yet learned it: Backstory drives present action. I had assumed I was coming in at the beginning of story, that the sequence of events began with the car catching fire. In fact, I was entering a story already in progress for hours, days, maybe weeks before I stepped onto that parking lot and smelled the reek of charred automobile. That was already the first act curtain.
I think of that experience whenever I am tempted to draw too neat a conclusion, whenever I see a story whose arc is just too perfect, whenever I find myself working too fast, or proving out my own preconceptions. There is a kind of gravity that pulls us toward a well-shaped narrative, a pleasing closure. We encounter a set of facts and almost immediately are temped to overlay a pattern on them, one of several stock patterns we have come to recognize, as if we already see the headline in our mind’s eye: Boy-Hero Saves Girl From Burning Car.
Sometimes the facts do indeed point to an obvious story. But more often there is a larger true thing, a Big Fact, behind the Facts of the Case. It is this fact behind the facts that determines the meaning of all the other facts, creates a context for interpreting what our eyes are seeing and what our informants are telling us, and dictates the true syntax of a story.
For every story, like every sentence, has a syntax: a dynamic architectural cohesion that determines meaning, based on three qualities that every word in a sentence has—as does every element of a story:
You can see at once that priority involves a sequence of subordination—this thing is more or less important than that other thing. And of course to say that implies a relationship or lack of one between any two elements—and assumes you have discovered all the elements, including that first big fact that colors all the others individually and collectively.
Finding the fact behind the facts is crucial in both public and private stories. Sometimes the implications are personally important, as in a student memoir I once read. The writer remembered a childhood without a mother in which her father did his best by her but kept her from contact with his estranged wife, her mother, whom she missed terribly. Rather than simply invite the reader to wallow in her bittersweet memories, she approached the story as an investigator: she interviewed her father, other family members, former teachers, the neighbor woman who used to babysit her after school. She learned that in fact her father had been shielding her all those years from a dangerously unbalanced, drug-addicted mother who might have harmed her in all sorts of ways. He had sacrificed heroically to give her a life free of crisis and damage. This was the fact behind the facts—her calm, safe, happy childhood was a gift of love from her father at significant cost to him.
Her memoir, like all true memoirs, turned out to be not simply a scrapbook of memories to brood over or cherish, but a reckoning. That’s the reason to write a memoir: to find out what really happened in your life; to drive toward the fact behind all the other facts, and come to some understanding, however limited, of what it means—and accept that truth. That’s why it takes some audacity to attempt a memoir, for that reckoning lies in ambush and may not be pretty.
Our culture has become so infatuated with memory that we writers too often begin and end our research there. I realize that caveat even now, recounting my little story about the burning car and wondering just how much of my memory to trust—did he really break the window glass to get her out? Since I tell the story only to illustrate how I got something very wrong, and I am not claiming any consequence for the incident itself, I will leave it drawn anecdotally, rather than commit to the research I would feel obliged to do if I were naming names and writing about it as an event rather than as a cautionary tale, for then it would affect others’ lives and you, the reader, would have the right to a full and accurate accounting. I would check out other newspapers of the time (the one I worked for went out of business and its archives were destroyed), track down people who might have attended that high school in those days, consulted the alarm logs of the local fire department.
Memory can be warped, it lies, it tells us what we want to hear. So part of this essay is a call to work beyond personal knowledge and thus beyond memory, to test that memory against other evidence in the world. Memory will rarely match that evidence very neatly, but this is a good thing. Discrepancy between memory and other evidence is not a problem—it’s the point. The reckoning, the true story, lives in the space of the contradictions.
We live in an era when our government has announced that reality is what it claims it is, regardless of facts. We are currently fighting an intractable war partly because a well-respected journalist for the national newspaper of record reported a selected series of facts, all of them perhaps true individually, but all of them together leading toward a false story, because she never discovered the fact behind the facts of the case: that her main informant had an agenda to drive the U.S. toward invasion for his own personal gain.
Bloggers now report their opinions as facts and don’t really see the difference. The media reports the trivial facts of celebrities’ lives and so many more important facts simply go unreported in our world. Our government is obsessed with secrecy, with hiding facts, often facts that are or should be quite public—like the heartbreaking fact of military coffins being unloaded from transport planes at Dover Air Force Base, week after week.
There are layers of factualness: the box of parts from which we construct a story, and the intelligence behind the facts that determines how we shape those parts into a meaningful whole.
Even if you strive honestly and diligently to get your facts straight, to write from good research and personally persuasive knowledge of backstory, you’ll still get something wrong. But that’s the only chance you have to get it right.
If you begin by fudging facts, you’ve already drifted one degree off true. Like a ship with a minor compass error, the farther you travel, the farther out of true your story becomes, and after you’ve traveled far enough you are miles away from the true course. Worry the little facts, get them right, fret over being exact.
Had I been a better reporter that long-ago day, I might have asked some simple questions: How did the fire start? Do cars usually just burst into flame? How was it that she was in the car and he was outside it? How was she locked in?
I might even have thought to ask him, “Did you set the fire?”
And perhaps the most important question I failed to ask them both was this one: “What were you doing just before all this happened?”
Events have a past, a prelude, just as history has a future. There is truthfulness and there is truthiness, comedian Stephen Colbert’s term for faux “facts” that only seem to be true, that we would like to be true but that simply aren’t, that are repeated so often they become a lie to our advantage. When you sign your name to a byline, you’re claiming you know the difference.
Philip Gerard is the author of three novels, four books of nonfiction, eleven documentary scripts, and numerous essays. He chairs the Department of Creative Writing at University of North Carolina Wilmington.
photo by Dinty W. Moore